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Tuesday, August 24, 2010, in Plymouth, south coast of England

Hi everyone. Well, it’s been a while since we wrote, and we’ve covered a lot of territory since the last note. Thus, this note will be a long one, so we’ll try not to be hurt if you fall asleep halfway through it. We’ve arrived on the south coast, only about 100 miles from the place that the boat will stay for the winter. Last time we wrote, we had just arrived in Peel, on the Isle of Man.

The Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom, but it is a British Crown Dependency. This arrangement makes Queen Elizabeth II the official Lord of Man, a macho title if I’ve ever heard one. The island’s 221 square miles (572 square kilometers) smack in the midst of the Irish Sea places it within convenient attack distance from Scotland, Ireland, and England, not to mention Spain, and the ever-imperialistic Napoleon. The present native population can be traced to its Norse Vikings settling down with the indigenous Celtic women, whose ancestors had undoubtedly overcome the previous native peoples. Most of today’s residents are people who have moved to Isle of Man from somewhere else. There’s a movement afoot to wrest the Celtic language Manx out of its decline (similar to efforts in Scotland, Wales, and no doubt Ireland) by teaching it to grade-schoolers instead of less-adorable but probably more-useful, growing languages such as, well, Chinese. The parliament, called Tynwald, was nominally founded in AD 979, making it the oldest continuous ruling body in the world. And the island is the birthplace of Bee Gees Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has a residence here, and has no doubt enjoyed the world-famous motorcycle race, the hundred-year old Isle of Man TT, as well as many other local racing events.

The Manx flag is simply a symbol on a red background. The symbol is three bent legs at 120-degree angles, each with a spur on the foot, joined at the thigh, and apparently running in a circle, not unlike Curly of the Three Stooges. The official island motto translates roughly from Latin as “Whichever way you throw it, it will stand.” So that might be the reason that there’s a Manx breed of cat. This symbol is called a triskellion, and there are no standards for its design, including on government publications. Sometimes the legs are bent more or less, or the thighs begin at different hours of the imaginary clock, and sometimes they run in the opposite direction. Sometimes they’re even dressed differently. The legs apparently derive from a Manx legend that the original deity Manannan defeated some invaders by transforming himself into three legs.

We weren’t sure what our options would be on the following day, a Sunday, so we decided to wander about as soon as possible. Someone had suggested that we tour the factory where Manx herring is smoked into kippers, and we were just in time for the only day that a tour would have worked for us. A kipper is a whole herring that has been split from head to tail, gutted, and then soaked in brine and smoked. They’re a staple of the Manx diet (Manx is the adjective for “Isle of Man”), and the ones from the Irish Sea are best caught between June and August, when they’re the most oily, but haven’t spawned yet, after which they are unsuitable for kippering. So they are most oily before they spawn, and yet this is when they at their most attractive. Herring are apparently a lot like men.

There are two shops selling herring at the harbor head in Peel; one of them offers tours. This one also boasts that they are the only “traditional” curer of kippers, meaning that they smoke the fish using smoke from wood shavings rather than the more modern electric heaters.

If you’ve ever looked into smoking fish on your own, you’ll know that there isn’t a lot to it. The first step is to clean it, splitting the fish and taking out its innards. This job was historically performed by women, known by the professional designation of “fish girls.” Now there’s a machine that has eliminated that function. Then you brine it in a mixture of salt and water. This is a dicey process – too little time and the fish won’t take the smoke, too much time and it will be too salty. For this fish curer, the magic number is ten minutes.

The fish then hang from hooks (fish should really learn that hooks are not their friends) and the fish-laden racks are suspended over the burning embers. You can tell when the fish are done when they look done, apparently, according to our guide, who has undoubtedly looked at quite a few of them.

I had the opportunity to try Manx kippers for breakfast the next day at a tearoom overlooking the beach. It was a stunning summer day, and we thought that the temperature might break the 70-degree barrier (20 Celsius). The beach is right alongside the harbor, and doubles in width at low tide.

We spent the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon visiting the Peel Castle and the House of Manannan Museum. Both of these sights were well-planned and well-documented. The castle sported white numbered posts, which provided links for audio descriptions, and mainly gave you a reason to traipse all around the castle grounds. The island upon which the castle sat was a perfect observation point for the harbor, and well-endowed with high ground. Peel Castle was in just the right state of repair, not perfectly restored and Disney-like, but also not a pile of slimy foundations, either. The audio tour was crisp and informative, and the views of the island and out to sea were postcard-ready.

The museum was quite large, spanning three stories, and every inch was thought through to give the visitor the experience of walking through history. There were touch-screens and movie rooms, artifacts and dioramas, and every sense was touched. The fishery room smelled fishy, and the dioramas were filled with mannequins and background conversations. The museum shop sold many items engraved with the curious three-footed emblem, including a canister of socks – three of them.

The weather would work for both of the next two days, but one day would be sunny and the next would be rainy. In either case, departure needed to be when the entrance was open. There’s a gate across the harbor that only opens at high tide for a few hours. We had come in on an afternoon high tide. If high tide is at 4 AM, then that’s when you leave. The next morning, we untied our lines in the dark and left the harbor just after four in the morning. At least it wasn’t raining.

We didn’t expect to be able to sail, but we did manage to get across the Irish Sea without using the engine very much. We arrived near Dublin by about five in the evening, but we’d been going for more than twelve hours, and it sure seemed like a long day to us. As we docked, it began to rain. Once we were settled, we had a quiet dinner on board and went to bed early.

We must have bumped the dock, more specifically a nail alongside the dock, because there was a gash on the hull that we hadn’t seen before. Art ran his finger on it, and powder dusted his fingertips. It’s expected that there is a maintenance list for the boatyard over the winter, and this would be another item to go on it.

The marina at Dun Laoghaire (pronounced “dunleary”) takes up a good chunk of Dublin Bay. When it was first built, the harbor was the largest in the world. Our marina was pretty big, too, and we were only a few boats from the farthest spot away from the office and town. Just to get to the shore, we’d have to walk a kilometer (2/3 mile.)

The marina is not in Dublin proper, but it’s just across the street from the rapid transit DART that whisks you there in twenty minutes. The town of Dun Laoghaire is worth visiting in its own right, and we spent our first day exploring locally.

After we walked around the town, we ventured along the beach path to a Martello tower now housing a museum honoring local hero James Joyce. This tower is one of fifteen built in 1804 to counter the threat of Napoleon’s army. Joyce stayed in this place for a week as the guest of Oliver St. John Gogarty, a poet who was the model for the Ulysses character Buck Mulligan. Joyce himself and another resident were the other two main characters in the chapter Telemachus. We didn’t have time to visit the museum, so we continued our walk to the town of Dalkey.

Dalkey was called “the town of seven castles”, but only two of them are still there, both on the main street. It’s a charming place, and we stopped for a coffee simply because it wasn’t time for a meal. We resolved to go back, though, and check out some of the many restaurants and cafés along the main street. We took the local train back to the marina.

The DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) is a metro system that connects downtown to the outer areas. This replaced a train that was quite a bit older. The section of train that we were taking had begun life in the mid-nineteenth century as a connection between Dalkey and Dun Laoghaire (our marina.) in the form of an “atmospheric railway.” This type of transport is essentially a pipe with a vacuum that whooshes the train from one place to another. So the railway apparently began as the same sort of pneumatic tube that takes your bank deposit from your car to your teller. There were a few problems with this method. There was no engine, and no brakes. Too much vacuum, and the train would charge past its destination and run off of the tracks. Too little vacuum, and the train wouldn’t make it to the station. The contract for third-class passengers made clear that they’d be instructed to push the train the rest of the way.

We hadn’t been to Dublin yet, so that was our destination the next morning, and the DART was again our chauffeur. A brisk trip into town, and we were at the edge of the old part of the city, and right at Trinity College. This prestigious institution was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, and lists among its esteemed alumni Samuel Beckett, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde, as well as many Nobel-level scientists and mathematicians whose names aren’t recognized but whose accomplishments are legion.

There was a tour of the building exteriors, presented by a history alumnus (with ample warnings to parents about the value of selecting marketable majors). We stopped at the statue of George Salmon, Provost from 1888 to 1904. He famously announced that women would be admitted to the school “over my dead body”, but bowed to mounting popular and royal pressure in 1901. He died in 1904, and less than a month later, the first woman entered the school. After the last day of the spring term, there’s a ritual celebration, and apparently the students have been known to decorate the dear Provost’s statue head with pairs of undies.

Even with all of this history, the most compelling reason to visit Trinity College is to see the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels. This lavish manuscript was probably written in Iona in Scotland (which we visited earlier in the season), and was carried out in AD 806 by monks fleeing a Viking raid. It was moved to Trinity College for safekeeping in the seventeenth century.

The library in which this document is housed and exhibited is breathtaking in its own right. It’s the largest single-chamber library in the world, and this room contains 200,000 of the library’s oldest volumes. They’re arranged not by topic, or any other easy retrieval system, but by size. That doesn’t seem like a great idea, but it works well if your goal is to amaze your visitors. The result is a strikingly traditional array of shelving, augmented by rickety two-story ladders, and bordered by busts of scholars, many of whom are alumni who undoubtedly worked in this very room.

The Book of Kells exhibition is detailed and luminous, with magnifications of tiny fragments of the pages (only two of the four books are on display for safety reasons.) This manuscript was enhanced over many years, but all of it took place before the printing press, and there is no other like it. Each giant, lit poster of a written section explains in great detail every aspect of what must have been grueling, painstaking work. You have to admire this, as it is undoubtedly a labor of love by these monks. Each calligraphic letter is nearly indistinguishable from the same letter somewhere else in the book. Artwork decorates much of the white space, and some of the initial letters are delicately decorated lavishly with stories, or animals, or designs. The ink was still spectacularly bright, and it should be, as much of it was imported from the ends of the known world. The blue color comes from lapis lazuli, which must have been imported from the only known place at the time, Afghanistan. From every perspective, this is a masterwork, and we dawdled over its pages.

It was time for lunch, and we selected the venerable Bewley’s Oriental Café, right on the pedestrian-friendly Grafton Street. This establishment was founded in 1927 and is the largest café with more than a million customers annually. The building’s blackboard-and-booth décor would be casual and clubby were it not also bejeweled with a set of gorgeous stained glass windows by the artist Harry Clarke. There’s a small theater inside as well, the venue for drama and music. James Joyce mentions the café in his book “Dubliners”, and other literary figures, including Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Casey were frequent visitors.

After lunch, we wandered around, stopping in St. Ann’s Church, an 18th century building with a neo-Romanesque façade and a Georgian interior (Georgian architecture is a common sight in Dublin.) The church is well-known for its 300-year tradition begun with a bequest by a local lord. It’s a bread shelf, upon which loaves of bread are always made available to the hungry, with no questions asked. Oscar Wilde was baptized in this church, and Bram Stoker was a neighbor, not a parishioner, living only a few hundred meters away. Vampires don’t like churches much, I suppose. After continuing our guidebook’s recommended walk, we boarded the DART for home.

We hadn’t yet had enough of tourist Dublin, so the next morning, we got back on the train and went into town. Our first stop on this day was Ireland’s National Museum, and this building (of several around the city) focuses on archaeology. The collection begins with the Stone Age and includes priceless works in medieval metalwork. There was a large collection of Bronze Age gold items. My favorite section was the bog.

Bogs are geographical curiosities that are found all over Ireland’s terrain, and this section of the exhibition begins with an explanation of how they’re formed. Essentially, dead, acidic plant material, peat, accumulates in lakes and creates a mushy environment with extraordinary biodiversity. But this description, though a wonderful introduction to the country’s natural history, is really intended to demonstrate that organic objects left in bogs get preserved in an eerie manner, leading to the discovery of ancient bog bodies. The museum has several on display. These remarkable finds still have their internal organs, though one’s been gutted after his murder and another was decapitated. One of them has a fine head of hair, and another’s creepy curled hand could really use a manicure. We saw Baronstown West man, Gallagh Man, Clonycaven Man and Oldcroghan Man, most of whom met their end in an untimely manner, and often with some ritual humiliation.

After lunch, we toured Dublin Castle, a complex of buildings that began as a Norman fortification in 1204. Many of the rooms are still in use, normally for ceremonial occasions, such as an inauguration or a state visit. They’re grand and lush, and we enjoyed the tidbits of gossip that were part of the narrative. The servants who brought food into the banquet room were to sing or whistle on their way in. This served several purposes. The first is that the nobility could change the subject if they were discussing something terribly private. The second is that the servant heard whistling or singing was undoubtedly not eating from the plate he was bringing to the diners. I wondered if that’s why the first ventriloquists learned to talk and drink at the same time. A side room was dedicated to the ladies after dinner, when the men retired elsewhere. Single ladies had to wait to be called, if someone wanted a dance. So there they sat, all dressed up. In those days, one of the ingredients in makeup was wax, which probably provided a porcelain look. But if you sat by the fire in the room, your face melted off. Thus there was a “fireplace fan”, a screen that would enable you to stay warm, yet crisp as a candle. A large throne dominated the aptly-named Throne Room. How odd it would be to sit in that giant chair while everyone else receded into normal furniture? We learned that Queen Victoria, a petite woman, had some difficulty climbing up onto it, no doubt muttering under her royal breath while she provided a view of some plumber’s cleavage.

On the next day, we walked again to the nearby town of Dalkey, to give ourselves some more time to explore.

Dalkey was an important harbor in medieval times and well into the seventeenth century. Because valuable goods were stored there on their way to Dublin, fortifications were built in the form of castles, some of which survive today. One of them has been made into the Visitors Center, and we took the tour on offer.

Considering that this is not a huge or important town, they’ve made a lot of investment into the story they tell. There were audio-visual electronics, and poster display, and a cast of three actors who explained the castle to us. We began in one room for a DVD presentation, and were escorted into the ruins of the adjacent church, to be shown around by a woman dressed in Elizabethan garb who was very much in character the entire time. She asked us how we’d arrived (�������by horse and cart, I presume?”) and called us all “good gentleman” and “princesses” (for the little girls who were visiting. Alas, they remained entirely uninterested.) Her presentation was followed by a discussion indoors by a man who was a barber, surgeon, and dentist (as they really commonly were simultaneously in those days.) He had a great deal of difficulty getting volunteers to agree to a shave with his sharp ugly knife or a tooth extraction with his rusty pliers. He did show us how he wiped off the blood onto gauze spiral-wrapped around a dowel, and how he’d display that dowel to gain more customers (to a masochistic market, no doubt.) But that dowel did look a lot like the barber shop pole that we all recognize today.

This stay introduced us to two Hallberg-Rassy owners with whom we’ve been corresponding for months. Each belongs to one of the four yacht clubs adjacent to the marina. We had the opportunity to use one as visiting members, which gave us office facilities with wireless access and more importantly, coffee and the best scones I think I’ve ever eaten. We also were generously invited by each of our friends to dinner at their clubs, and had the opportunity to tour the beautiful buildings, dine in style, and enjoy the enchanting company of new friends.

We’d been watching the weather carefully. The next trip was to take us to the south coast of England. There was no alternative to an overnight sail, so we needed a good two-day forecast. For the first few days we were in Dun Laoghaire, the forecast was terrible as far as the eye could see. Art started to research how we might leave the boat for the winter in Ireland if the weather never improved. In mid-August, at this latitude, summer ends soon, and cool-weather gales start to be a fact of sailing life.

Art saw a window, a day of dead calm followed by two days of rousing sailing before the wind, followed by several days of gales. We could extend our stay in Dublin and take our chances. We could wait until the good sailing day and chance that the next day would be terrible or that the gale would arrive too soon. Or we could bite the bullet and motor all day and some of the night, have a decent sail to England’s south coast, and anchor before moving on. We opted to motor.

After all our time in Ireland, we had made do without a phone-based data service, but we bought a SIM card on our last day just so that we could pull down updated weather forecasts as we made our way down the coast. There was one harbor that we could stop if we had to hide from the weather, but we were eager to make progress.

We left very early in the morning, after a late night dinner out. I took a seasickness pill that seems to work for me, and promptly fell asleep for six hours, waking in late morning. The Irish Sea was flat, and we motored through, pushing aside a small wake. The winds stayed calm through the evening and the night, and we made good progress, if not memorable sailing. This was the first journey this season that required a motor for more than half the miles.

In the morning, the winds picked up and we began to sail. Both the main and the jib were reefed, and we maintained a good speed. But the wind was behind us and the current was the opposite direction, resulting in high seas that flop all around you.

My seasickness medication of the day before had worn off, and I began to feel awful. Luckily, this is a pill that you can take even after you’re not feeling right. I took another pill, lay down, and promptly fell asleep for another five hours. I looked at the pill container expecting to find a picture of the Wicked Witch of the West “Poppies, my little pretty!” I should have just looked at the ingredients to see if they’d been giving me opium. At one point, the jib sheet flopped into a loop and pulled off the cover of the dorade vent through its own threads. Art had to retrieve this cover while it rolled around on deck and so did he (unlike the cover, he was wearing a harness that was clipped on.) The flopping sheet must have wound around the boat hook that was clipped to the deck, because I looked up from my medicated stupor and saw that it was in two pieces and about to jump overboard. As always, Art stood 90% of our watches.

When I woke up, the seas had calmed a little and so had my constitution. We continued to the Helford River, where an anchorage was the perfect place to end a two-day-long day. The Rocna anchor we’d installed in Ardfern had its maiden voyage (more accurately its maiden sinking, like the Titanic), and we went to sleep not very long after dinner. We’d covered 250 miles and we were exhausted.

The next day’s sail was shorter and no less dramatic. With the anchor, we pulled up a sushi restaurant’s fill of seaweed and wondered if we were simply being held in by a bunch of ruffled string. We made good speed through the water, though the current was against us, and headed for Plymouth.

In honor of nearby Cornwall, we played the Pirates of Penzance on our iPod. The unfriendly seas were still jumping all about as we sailed with our jib reefed with four rolls and the main safely stored away. We’d wallow to one side, and then to the other. Finally, we arrived at Plymouth, greeted by a nearby town ringed with pastel-painted row houses.

You can’t just motor into the marina at Plymouth; there’s a lock. But it’s only one, unlike the Caledonian Canal, and it opens fairly frequently, unlike the Isle of Man. So we called the lock and got inside on the next opening, sat while the lock filled for a few minutes, and were on our way into the marina.

We’re really happy to have the adventurous sailing for the season behind us. The next few days will keep us in port, but we have lots of time to explore the rest of the area.

Hope you’re all doing fine. We miss you.

Love, Karen (and Art)